I might be responsible for your being here to begin with, but no more. If living bothers you as much as you say, you can fix it right now by jumping out the window. Call me next week, I'm busy." Harry Shiller, President of Disassociation Associates, hung up the phone and swung around in his chair to see Ron O'Malley who had just walked in.
"I'm sorry if I broke in on something."
"Forget it. It was just my son."
"Sam said that I have to go to Washington tomorrow afternoon, but I don't know . . . "
"What do you mean you don't know? You go to Washington, that's all, and do what you have to do there."
"I mean I don't have any money or anything and I already had . . . "
"Tell Sam to give you a hundred and fifty dollars . . . no, a hundred. Check in some cheap hotel, and get to this guy Smart first thing in the morning. Tell him his partner, what's his name . . . Adolph something . . . will settle on ten thou, no more, if he doesn't show his face in New York for a year. He's getting in the way. We don't care what he does or where. Just he don't come to Manhattan for a year. That's simple enough. Sam gives you the paper. You get it signed. Go see the White House and come back."
Ronald sighed. "I want to go, Mr. Shiller, it's not that. It's just that my novel -- you know the novel I've been writing -- well I have a good reader for it now, a professor at NYU and I was going to talk to him about it tomorrow night."
"Your novel." (There was impatience and scorn in how he said it.) "Look, kid, your novel will keep. This is business. (There was now respect and deliberateness in his intonation.) You have to have a way of making a living. This is it. It's good. Nowadays everyone wants to break their ties and we help them -- we're unique and you're one of our best scrams. In a couple of years, you'll be making double your income now. . What's your novel about anyway?" He looked as if he hoped there'd be no answer.
Ron was more than ready to tell, nurturing a flicker of hope that he might win a postponement of the trip. "It's a universal story, that will be read by all people everywhere for a long, long time, because of the story itself and because of the way it's told."
"I know, I know . . . But what's the story? Every young writer has the same idea."
Ron felt hurt; everyone did not have his ideas. "Well, it's about a young puppet-maker, a kind of wizard, in San Francisco, whose creations are bought and sold by an unsympathetic dealer, and who is in love with a beautiful girl who is going wrong. Then the boy gets mysterious messages on what is happening to the world and what to do about it, so he goes through ten messages, and seven phases of wisdom, encountering many disasters as the world collapses around him, always meeting up with the same dealer in different ways, and the girl, until finally they set up a new life on the ashes of the old . . . " Ronald's words faltered and drifted off like flotsam. He looked anxiously at Mr. Shiller.
For a moment he thought that Mr. Shiller would say "That's interesting. I'll buy a copy when it's published, now, about Washington . . . "
Instead, Mr. Shiller said, "That's interesting. I'll buy a copy when it's published. Now let me tell you something. You -- and others too -- think of me as someone maybe like this character, the dealer, in your story -- yes, you do, it makes, no, never mind -- and it's true, I'm kind of a dealer in split ups. But you seem to forget that I started from scratch, too, and become an account executive and V.P. in a big agency before I went in business on my own. I was even going to write a novel once -- before I got a wife, and kids, and saw what a phony racket the so-called printed word is. Beneath this rough exterior there beats a heart that can understand what you're up against, my boy."
"But now let me tell you. I like you, Ron. I'll give you a universal story, one that will sell millions of copies, You'll say it's autobiographical. And maybe some of it is. But so what? Harry Shiller's been around -- he sure has . . . Do you want to hear it? I've got a little time. Not true; Harry Shiller had priorities, he never had time.)
What could Ron say? And actually he was interested, and he fastened his large green eyes full upon the narrator's lips, grim lips, but now drooping sentimentally.
"The story always begins," he said, "with a poor boy from a small town. He's in Middle America -- where else? And naturally his father dies because no man can start out in life until his father dies. And then he leaves his mother, because that's universal, too, and goes to the big city, because that's where the action is. The big city is Chicago, 'hog butcher of the world,' 'the city of big shoulders,' where everyone had to change trains for everywhere."
Mr. Shiller stood up and looked unseeingly into Ronald's eyes. He walked to the window and turned around in the light, framing himself as a large dark shadow before Ronald.
The boy is good at drawing. He drew a loaf of bread for his teacher once that was scrumptious -- golden and crusty -- with the beautiful hand of a woman cutting it. (His teacher had beautiful hands.) He went to the advertising agency of -- call it -- Braxton, Witticomb, and Hanke. Braxton was dead. He got to see Hanke. 'Show me what you can do.' The boy unwrapped his drawing of bread. 'What's that?' 'It's the most useful thing in life.' 'That's good. What's next?' 'Here,' said the boy, digging into his portfolio, the second most useful thing in your life.'
" 'What?' said Hanke. 'What did you say?'
'The second most useful thing in your life.'
'Stop, I've seen enough. You're hired. Forget we ever discussed it.'
'You mean about hiring me?'
'No, no. You're hired. You were hired even before you came in here.'
'You mean about the bread?'
' No, no, forget it. I'll see you later.'
"So the young man was hired and was happy in the big designing room of the agency. He met a good girl there. She ran errands, kept the supplies, sharpened pencils. She was called a Junior Expediter. They fell in love.
"But this man Hanke, he's no good. He breaks up with Witticomb. The boy stays with Hanke, who doubles his pay. The girl goes with Witticomb, who takes the best people with him. But Hanke starts something. He has a slogan, 'Product X is the second most important thing in your life.' He pushes it, publicizes it everywhere, gets admiring news articles in trade magazines about it, makes Time. Pretty soon everybody knows the slogan, they're playing games with it. Get the point? He's got an open-ended slogan, a famous slogan, without a product. And he has all the rights to it.
"He has the boy drawing pictures of mysterious packages, empty rooms, Chinese boxes full of empty drawers, landscapes with blank spaces. And Hanke has the copyright. Or thinks he has, because he's copyrighted practically every product that spends much for advertising by sticking them into the blank X -- like 'flowers,' or 'milk' -- so he can scare out anyone. It cost him only a few thousand bucks. He has to sue right and left. The thief is attacked by thieves. He hires some guy to do nothing but snarl at other outfits and threaten them.
"Imagine the value of the empty slogan now. Hanke is getting bidders from all around who want to become Product X - toothpastes, aspirins, shoe manufacturers, automobiles, baby diapers -- you name it. We, he, got an offer even from a book-seller, it was laughable. Finally, the big one is hooked. You know what it is?
"You don't. Never mind. Do you know what he got for it? Four million dollars!"
Ron emitted an appropriate "Wow!"
"This Hanke is a mean bastard. Doesn't give a damn about anyone. He has a daughter, a bad one, too. I found, I mean, this pig had no morals at all. He even slept with her, and she went through everybody else in the shop and then along comes our boy and of course pretty soon she's shacking up with him, and she's turned his head. She's different -- Ron, make no mistake -- she's different. And he's doing just fine -- cash in his pockets, driving around in her Mercedes, getting a high from being somebody in her fast set who has to do with Product X. It's funny world, ain't it?"
"It's amazing," said Ron. "Up from nothing."
"And on nothing . . . It doesn't work out so good. The young man bumps into his nice girl in the Art Institute and she's pregnant. She won't even discuss the subject with him. None of his business -- she's a woman's lib type. Now its his turn to go down. Witticomb sues Hanke for rights to the empty slogan, saying it must have been produced when they were partners. Hanke knows that if the young man tells the truth, he loses. He tells his daughter the story to get her to marry her boy friend and take to Pago Pago or somewhere. She, the bitch, gets a better idea and tells him to demand pay-offs from both Witticomb and her father for his testimony. He does so, the goof -- he's a real loser. What he thinks is: 'I get this money and I use it to help my real sweetheart and our baby.' Isn't that something? Hanke promises him a share but says he is strapped for cash. Witticomb won't give him a dime, especially now that he is feeling sure of his case. His slut throws a fit when he tells her what he wants the money for, and slaps him going seventy, so he wraps the nice car around a tree, breaking his ribs and killing her. His sweetheart learns from Witticomb that he's been trying the blackmail and doesn't or wouldn't believe his excuses even it he had tried to tell her.
"So he's sunk. Hanke settles with Witticomb when he hears that he is about to assume the right to sell the slogan to a wine company for peanuts -- you know, 'a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou'"
"Was this the big Product X deal you mentioned?" ventured Ronald as timidly as he could, for Mr. Shiller was becoming quite agitated in relating the story.
"No," said Shiller quickly, impatient to complete his story. "That was the Nuclear Energy Conglomerate."
"Therefore," and Shiller chopped the air with a violent stroke, "neither has to give him anything. He has no one who loves him, is out of a job. He is broke, and he hates himself." He has turned his back and was looking out the window onto the gloomy Manhattan winterscape.
"That's a marvelous story," said Ron. "Is that the ending.?
"I don't know," muttered Mr. Shiller. "Make up your own endings."
"Couldn't the good girl forgive him? I would believe that . . . maybe."
"It'd be more likely if the rich bitch didn't get killed and kept him tied to her. . He was no bargain anyhow."
"Well, I'll certainly give it a lot of thought . . . It does have universal aspects."
"Go on, get going, Ron. I've kept my conference button on long enough."
Ron wanted to finish. "It has the poor boy making his way. It has mother love. It has the conflict between morality and profit. The symbolism of the loaf of bread, the struggle between sacred and profane love. But nobody wins. Is that the universal message?"
"What do you mean, nobody wins?" suddenly thundered Shiller. "Didn't the good girl win? Didn't she.. . I don't know.. . finally.. . wouldn't she? Hell." He seemed quite distressed, standing there slumping, behind his desk. "People . . . writers . . . children, jobs . . . sons . . . why . . . sons . . . " His words were anxious now and distinct, and he couldn't finish. He choked back a sob, but another broke from him, and another.
Ron was overcome with sympathy, he knew not why. He couldn't stand it; it was as if he were watching the wall of a building topple in a single brick sheet into rubble and dust. He wept. It is strange to see such green eyes crying . . . like a tropical waterfall.